for ISKCON News on July 2, 2010
What do you think of when someone says the word, “Doughnut”? Fast food chains? Cops in a car pretending to “stake out a joint” while guiltily putting on the pounds? Perhaps Homer from the Simpsons saying, “Mmmm… sugary, fried, greasy treats…”
Whatever your thoughts are, the words “healthy” and “spiritual” probably aren’t amongst them.
Yet Doughnut Plant, one of the trendiest and most popular doughnut shops in New York City, has managed to make these words synonymous with its fare.
“I never thought of doughnuts as junk food,” says Mark Israel, the Plant’s outgoing owner and mastermind. “We constantly put attention to quality, and carefully control the process so that they’re as healthy as doughnuts can be.”
This means buying seasonal and often organic fresh fruit and nuts to use in the glazes at the local farmer’s market. It also means using fresh fruit in the jam filling, which Doughnut Plant staff make themselves. And it means that every doughnut is free from eggs, trans fat, preservatives, and artificial flavorings.
“Our doughnuts are also not greasy at all,” Mark says. “People say that sometimes their stomach hurts when they eat other doughnuts, but not when they eat ours.”
Of course, when you buy a doughnut, you’re looking for deliciousness, not health—and sometimes the two can be mutually exclusive.
Not in this case.
Doughnut Plant’s doughnuts are light, fluffy, mind-blowingly good and come in an almost endless array of inventive flavors and styles. There are yeast doughnuts and cake doughnuts. There are Mark’s trademarked square jelly doughnuts with jam in every bite. There’s the Tres Leche, based on the traditional Mexican recipe in which cake is is soaked in three different types of milk—evaporated, condensed, and cream. There’s the decadent Blackout, covered in cake crumbs and filled with chocolate pudding. There’s the brand new Crème Brulee doughnut, bursting with rich custard and topped with shiny, crackling toasted sugar. And there’s an ever-changing roster of outrageous glazes, including pomegranate, apple cinnamon, mango, red raspberry, Meyer lemon, banana pecan, toasted almond, roasted chestnut, pistachio, blueberry, rose petal, and fresh lavender flower.
“But the most important ingredient in all the doughnuts is devotion to Krishna,” Mark says, probably the most left-field comment you could expect—or not expect—from a trendy, near-celebrity confectioner. “We offer them all to the Plant’s resident Deities of Gaura-Nitai and Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra—and since the Lord should eat only the best, that’s what gives me the impetus to make them the best they can possibly be.”
So how did this New York entrepreneur come to not only be making such in-demand, unique doughnuts, but offering them to Lord Krishna too?
His story begins when he was a small boy.
A Higher Taste
Israel’s grandfather, Herman, passed away when Mark was only three years old—but he left an impression. Herman had begun working at his first bakery at 16, baked bread for the army during World War 1, and later opened his own pastry shop in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he made everything using his own inventive recipes—including one for doughnuts.
Mark grew up hearing stories about his grandfather’s shop, and would regularly visit his grandmother’s house to bake cookies and bread. It wasn’t long before he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and in 1981, at the age of 18, he moved to New York to start a career as a cook.
To find strength all alone in the big city, Mark turned to spirituality. His parents had been very God conscious, seeing God in every religion—after all, his mother was Catholic and his father Jewish, yet they had married anyway, even in the rigid 1950s—and Mark took their sensibilities with him, studying Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and any other religion he could learn about.
Then, while living in Manhattan’s East Village in the late 1980s, he began to meet a succession of people who seemed different, whose demeanor and spiritual qualities were especially attractive. Each time he asked, “Who is that person?” the answer was always the same: “He’s a Hare Krishna.”
“I had to go and see what it was all about, so I went to visit the New York ISKCON temple,” Mark recalls. “The first time I went, I was scared, because at that time I didn’t know what the Deities were, and idol worship is frowned upon in both Judaism and Christianity. I was waiting outside the temple room door, afraid to go in, when I noticed a devotee selling prasadam, food sanctified by being offered to God. I tried some, and found it was a style of cooking that I hadn’t experienced before—it was so alive!”
He laughs. “I have a very healthy apetite, and so I bought more and more prasadam and just kept eating it. The more I ate, the more courage I had, and finally, I was able to overcome my fear and go in to listen to the lecture.”
Mark soon found himself fascinated by Krishna consciousness. The devotees talked about things that he already believed in but that he had never heard a religion discuss openly before, like vegetarianism and reincarnation. They were able to answer all his questions, and everything they said struck home with him. He kept coming back, and has never stopped visiting the temple since.
By 1994, Mark was completely burnt out by over a decade of working for different restaurants and bakeries. Now 31, he didn’t want to work for other people anymore. But what could he do?
Then he had an idea.
A year ago, when he had been back home in North Carolina visiting his parents, his dad had been cleaning out the attic. Mark had gone through the pile of junk and old memorabilia, and nestled in the midst of it, he had discovered an old file box. Inside it was his grandfather’s original doughnut recipe—which struck Mark as both unusual and perfect for a vegetarian like him, since it was egg-free. On a whim, he and his dad had made doughnuts using the recipe, and they were delicious.
Now, he decided to call his dad for the recipe. Incorporating his own interest in organics and natural foods, Mark began making doughnuts in his apartment, and took them to a small coffee shop which bought them on the spot. This led to orders from another store, and then another and another. Nobody else was doing what Mark was doing—making gourmet doughnuts—and customers loved them.
“Soon it got too much for my tiny Lower East Side apartment—there was flour and sugar everywhere,” he says. “So I rented the basement of the apartment complex from my landlord, and converted it into a bakery.”
For five years, Mark made doughnuts all night and delivered them wholesale on his bicycle in the morning. “It was crazy—I was working for 14 to 20 hours a day,” he says. “I was exhausted, and there was no one to help me. It was just me and the doughnuts.”
Mark’s doughnuts began to slowly gain a higher profile, with more coffee shops and gourmet food stores such as Dean and Deluca and Balducci’s snapping them up. But with no staff and limited space, Mark found the growth of business stunted. Times were hard, and he couldn’t see much hope on the horizon.
Finding Sweet Success
Then, in 2000, his father Marvin and brother David came forward with money to invest in his project, and Mark finally moved out of the basement, opening Doughnut Plant at 379 Grand Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“But I still didn’t have any staff,” he says. “So my dad moved to New York to help me—I cut the doughnuts while he fried. We bought a van for deliveries, so that I wouldn’t have to cycle everywhere anymore. And we began selling retail, which was wonderful—I really enjoyed talking to my customers and getting feedback from them.”
Gradually, Mark began to teach others how to make doughnuts, and to delegate. As the business grew, he hired more employees, and became free to relax from the exhausting physical schedule he had followed for so many years and to focus on expansion.
One day, a Japanese restaurant owner, Jun Goto, happened to try Mark’s doughnuts at one of the coffee shops that sold them. He liked them so much that he visited Doughnut Plant and told Mark he’d like to franchise the business in Tokyo. The two forged a partnership, and Mark helped launch the first Japanese Doughnut Plant in 2004. Today, there are twenty branches in Tokyo and a further twenty in Seoul, Korea.
In New York, meanwhile, Doughnut Plant has become a sensation. Everyone’s eager to get a taste of New York’s highest quality doughnut, and the Plant’s wildly diverse group of customers—from young to old, from hipster to businessman—are raving about it everywhere they can.
“Hands down the best doughnut I've eaten in my life,” wrote Jennifer from New Jersey on yelp.com, where Doughnut Plant has a 4.5 out of 5 rating. “Simply put, it’s pure bliss. It makes your mouth happy.”
Others agree. “This tiny little shop holds some of the most delicious and inventive doughnuts that I've tasted,” gushed Wing from Brooklyn; while Thompson from New York said, “I walked out of Doughnut Plant upset with myself that I couldn’t try all the flavors in one sitting.”
Doughnut Plant’s doughnuts are wholesaled to forty outlets across New York including gourmet food stores Dean and Deluca, Citarella, and Zabar’s. They’ve had rave reviews in the New York Times, Time Out New York, Vogue magazine, and The Boston Globe. They’ve appeared on TV shows such as the Today Show on NBC, Good Morning America, Regis and Kelly, and Martha Stewart, while Mark makes regular appearances on the Food Network—Doughnut Plant was recently featured on June 21st’s episode of The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Just Add Krishna
It’s clear that Mark’s years of dedication have finally paid off—Doughnut Plant is a certified success.
And yet, Mark doesn’t take credit for any of it. “It’s all Krishna’s doing,” he says. “I see businesses getting successful or going out of business around me all the time, and I know that I have no control over such things. I just keep my head down and work hard, like everybody else at the Plant.”
Mark shows his understanding that all his success really belongs to Krishna by offering all his doughnuts daily to the Deities of Gaura-Nitai and Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra worshiped on an altar in the Doughnut Plant’s basement.
This practice isn’t whimsical—it’s a standard part of his staff’s daily work routine. “After I launched our franchise stores in Tokyo and Seoul, I also showed the staff there how to offer the doughnuts to Krishna, making it part of their day too,” he explains. “For me, to have my own business would mean nothing if the doughnuts weren’t offered. ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada often said that just as six zeros mean nothing on their own, but become so valuable when you add a one in front of them, human civilization means nothing until you add God consciousness. So in the same way, I feel like all my doughnuts are like useless zeros—they’re even shaped like them—until you add Krishna.”
This attitude has yielded some wonderful results. “The second time I visited our first Tokyo branch, one of the staff I’d shown how to offer walked up to me and said Hare Krishna!” Mark recalls, his eyes lighting up. “He told me he had bought Srila Prabhupada’s books and had been reading them. On another occasion, a customer told me he had become vegetarian because of the Doughnut Plant. It was a very emotional moment for me.”
Mark feels strongly that his work at the Doughnut Plant is service to Krishna. “As well as offering our doughnuts and worshiping Deities of Krishna, half of the staff we employ are devotees and the rest are very favorable,” he says. “On top of that, many devotees of Krishna come to visit all the time, including senior Prabhupada disciples and gurus. So my job constantly reminds me of Krishna. It’s a very fortunate situation.”
With business thriving, Mark plans to open Doughnut Plant’s long-awaited second New York branch at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street this October. Unlike the smaller Grand Street location, the new store will have a larger retail area and will be what Mark calls a “doughnut lounge.” “You’ll be able to sit down, relax, eat doughnuts and chat,” he says. “I’m very excited about it. The Chelsea Hotel is a landmark building, built in the 1800s, and it’s got a lot of character and personality. It feels like a good match for the Doughnut Plant.”
Once the 23rd street location is established, Mark plans to expand his business around the US, establishing branches in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.
Yet no matter how big his business becomes, Mark is eager to keep Krishna consciousness close. “I’d love for as many devotees as possible to be a part of it, all working and serving together,” he says. “And they’d be sure to find the Doughnut Plant a great atmosphere. We’re always preparing food for Krishna and offering it to Him, so it’s easy to remember Krishna—you’re basically doing devotional service while you’re working.”
He smiles. “And that’s why I love it here.”
Doughnut Plant is currently looking for devotee staff to make doughnuts for both its Grand Street and 23rd street locations. Interested devotees can email Mark Israel at firstname.lastname@example.org.